Spoiler Alert: If you have yet to see The Way and have an interest in doing so, you may want to read this short essay after you’ve seen the film.
Many of the modern world’s physical comforts are spiritually bankrupting because they make our lives too easy. Without struggle and purpose in our lives, meaning often evaporates. I speculate that many a personal crisis has arisen out of this struggle to find meaning. As such, many of us create artificial struggles in our lives in order to find meaning. Global travel, running marathons, and doing things like triathlons are all attempts to quench our thirst for struggle and, ultimately, add ephemeral meaning to our lives. Look around and you’ll see many affluent, yet discontented individuals of all types embarking on a variety of these types of journeys or adventures with hopes of finding meaning through an experiential transformation of the self.
In his newest film, The Way, Emilio Estevez explores the essence of these spiritual journeys. The Way is a film about a father who unexpectedly makes an epic journey after his son dies while attempting to complete “The Way”, i.e., the Way of St. James (also called the El Camino de Santiago). “The Way” is a famous and storied Catholic pilgrimage route in Western Europe.
The story’s main character, Tom Avery, is an ophthalmologist from Ventura, CA and near the beginning of the film he makes the trip to the French Pyrenees in order to collect the remains of his son, Daniel, who was tragically killed during a storm near the beginning of his journey on the El Camino de Santiago.
We learn that Daniel, a highly intelligent seeker, was discontent with his traditional path in life. As such, he abandoned his graduates studies in order to journey along “The Way” and to see the world. Like many of today’s young adults, Daniel is a seeker who believed that there must be more to life than the normal conventions of simply going to school, getting a job, getting married, having kids, and buying a house in the suburbs.
Over the years, we learn that Tom and Daniel grew increasingly disconnected from each other. Tom simply failed to understand why Daniel would throw it all away for these silly fantasies of travel and experience. Throughout the film there are several flashbacks to argumentative discussions between Tom and Daniel that only fathers and sons can have. In one such memorable flashback Daniel lectures to his dad, “You don’t choose your life, Dad, you live one.”
Predictably, Tom goes on to embark on the epic route using Daniel’s backpack and with his ashes in tow. Along his journey, Tom encounters three other travelers who he ends up completing most of the journey with. Ironically, all four of these travelers are making the pilgrimage without explicit religious purposes. Rather, they’re all in search of something else. Joost from Amsterdam is a gluttonous and gregarious fellow who is making the journey in order to lose weight. An emotionally scarred Canadian woman, named Sarah, is desperately trying to quit her nasty smoking habit. And Jack from Ireland is a travel writer suffering from writer’s block and is hoping to alleviate his condition by finding new material on the quest.
At the film’s conclusion, we learn that none of the characters attain their explicitly stated goals that they hoped to accomplish through completion of the journey. Yet, the failed attempt to find explicit meaning is ultimately what gave their journey meaning. Sadly, many individuals in today’s society are disappointed to find out that the secret of life is not something to be found on or at the end of some epic journey like “The Way”. The best part of completing these types of metaphorical journeys is that we paradoxically find meaning in the Sisyphean struggle to find meaning.